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How The Rich, Super-Rich Made Fortunes - An Overview

Rainer Zitelmann

8 July 2020

The clock winds down towards the US Presidential elections in November and it is highly likely that the great wealth of American businessmen and women will be a talking point. And even in other parts of the world, such as Asia and Europe, there are calls for wealth taxes and changes in policy to redistribute wealth.

A question that such thoughts raise is who are the richest people in certain countries and how, in particular, did they get their wealth? This matters, because defenders of wealth need to point towards the origins of it, particularly if it is generated by entrepreneurial hard work. The examples given in this article are mainly drawn from the US, but the lessons he draws apply globally, whether one is an advisor to UHNW individuals in Singapore, Dubai, London or Zurich. 

A regular writer in these pages is Rainer Zitelmann, an academic, businessman and commentator on such matters. He writes here about some of the facts about who the top wealthy people are and how the composition of wealthy populations has changed.

The editors are pleased to share these insights; the usual editorial disclaimers apply. To respond, and jump into the conversation, please email and

A clear majority of the richest people in the world became rich as self-made entrepreneurs – not as heirs. And although most millionaires and billionaires still come from the US, China is catching up fast. 

Today’s super-rich predominantly built their wealth as entrepreneurs. Individuals who became rich through stock investments really are a very rare exception. And this doesn’t just apply to the super-rich, but to other rich people, too:

Here, according to Forbes, are the world’s ten richest individuals:

1.   Jeff Bezos became rich as an entrepreneur with Amazon.
2.   Bill Gates became rich as an entrepreneur with Microsoft.
3.   Bernard Arnault became rich as an entrepreneur with luxury brands such as LVMH.
4.   Mark Zuckerberg became rich as an entrepreneur with Facebook.
5.   Warren Buffett became rich as an investor.
6.   Larry Ellison became rich as an entrepreneur with Oracle.
7.   Steve Ballmer became rich as an entrepreneur with Microsoft.
8.   Larry Page became rich as an entrepreneur with Google.
9.   Sergey Brin became rich as an entrepreneur with Google.
10. Amancio Ortega became rich as an entrepreneur with companies such as Zara.

Of the 10 richest people in the world, Warren Buffett is the only one who became rich investing in stocks. However, even he is not a typical stock market investor. For him, stocks are nothing more than a vehicle to make substantial investments in companies. Looking at the complete list, it is particularly striking just how many billionaires in China and the US have become rich through the internet.

A growing proportion of the super-rich are self-made
Many people claim that it used to be possible to become rich by one’s own efforts, but that today’s super-rich are mostly heirs. In fact, the opposite is true. The proportion of self-made billionaires among the super-rich has been rising continuously over the last 40 years and the number of heirs has been falling. The clearest documentation of this shift is in the US where, as well as publishing its annual list of the richest Americans, Forbes has also developed a scoring system to calculate the percentage of self-made billionaires and heirs in its ranking. Forbes regularly analyses its list and awards a score of 1 to 10 to each of the 400 richest Americans, based on how they became rich. Oprah Winfrey is a great example of someone who scores a 10: She rose from humble beginnings to become the world’s first black self-made billionaire and is currently worth $2.7 billion.

Self-made billionaires, defined by Forbes as those who score between 6 and 10, accounted for 48 per cent of the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans in 1984. In 2018, when Forbes last analysed its list in this way, this had risen to 67 per cent.

Globally, the percentage is likely to be significantly higher. After all, China has the most billionaires in the world after the United States (455 compared with 614) and most Chinese billionaires are self-made, including Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba ($39 billion) and Ma Huateng, the founder of Tencent ($38 billion).

According to data from the market research company Wealth X, 55.8 per cent of the 2,604 billionaires worldwide are self-made and 30.9 per cent are at least partly self-made. Only 13.3 per cent of billionaires inherited all of their assets. These data confirm a continuation of the long-term trend in the gradual increase in the proportion of self-made billionaires.

China is home to more and more of the super-rich
Developments in China have been particularly striking. Under Mao, China did not have a single billionaire. By 2010, however, the number had risen to 64 thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms. Right now there are 455 billionaires in China. As I mentioned above, no other country in the world - with the exception of the US - has as many billionaires as China. 

Looking beyond the billionaires to the millionaires, it is also clear just how important China has become. From 2000 until the outbreak of the global financial crisis in 2008, 80 per cent of the world’s new (!) millionaires came from the US and Europe. Since 2007, however, in spite of the fact that 50 per cent of the world’s new millionaires still come from the United States, 25 per cent come from China (Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2019, p. 30).

Moreover, these stunning developments in China serve to totally undermine the “zero-sum thinking” to which so many people subscribe. After all, there’s no arguing with the facts. Over the last few decades, the number of billionaires in China has risen more than in any other country while, at the very same time, the number of citizens living in extreme poverty has fallen faster and more sharply than in any country in the history of humanity. Again, the data couldn’t be clearer: As recently as 1981, the proportion of Chinese citizens living in extreme poverty was 88 per cent. Today, the figure has fallen to below 1 per cent. There couldn’t be a more striking refutation of zero-sum thinking. I think, therefore, that addressing the question of how inequality develops is far less important than how successfully poverty is being fought. And, as demonstrated in China, the growth in the ranks of the super-rich and the massive decrease in poverty are simply two sides of the same coin.

The thesis that the number of millionaires and billionaires is primarily rising as a result of increasing inequality is also refuted by the following fact: According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2019, rising average wealth was responsible for 78 per cent of the increase in the number of millionaires; population growth accounted for 16 per cent and increasing inequality for only 6 per cent.

China and India/US: distribution of millionaires and billionaires
There are, however, very striking differences in the way that wealth is distributed between millionaires and billionaires (i.e., within the group of rich people) in emerging countries such as India and China on the one hand and the US on the other, as confirmed by the following comparison of the number of dollar millionaires in a country as stated in the Knight Frank Wealth Report 2020 and the number of billionaires according to the Forbes list 2020:

-    According to Forbes, the US has 614 billionaires, which is 35 per cent more than China (455). According to the Knight Frank Wealth Report 2020 (p.18), however, there are almost four times as many millionaires in the US (240,575) as there are in China (61,587). 
-    Again, according to Forbes there are 614 billionaires in the US, roughly six times as many as in India (102). According to the Knight Frank Wealth Report 2020 (p.18), however, there are almost 40 times (!) as many millionaires in the US (240,575) as there are in India (5,986).

The number of millionaires in Asia is set to rise particularly rapidly over the next few years. The Knight Frank Wealth Report 2020, which defines UHNW individuals as people who own at least $30 million, doesn’t only analyse the status quo, it also looks at the future and forecasts growth in UHNW individual populations in different countries around the world. Of the five countries with the highest forecast percentage growth in UHNW individual populations, four are in Asia: India 73 per cent, Vietnam 66 per cent, China 58 per cent and Indonesia 57 per cent. In contrast, and on a much larger scale, of course, the UHNW individual population of the US is forecast to grow by “only” 22 per cent over the next five years. Overall, Knight Frank’s researchers estimate the percentage growth in UHNW individual populations in Asia between 2019 and 2024 at 44 per cent (compared with 17 per cent in Latin America and 23 per cent in Europe).

In its 2019 report, Credit Suisse projects a 23 per cent rise in the number of millionaires in the US between 2019 and 2024, compared with 30 per cent for Korea and 55 per cent for China.

Of course, such forecasts are nothing more than estimates and different wealth reports use different definitions and methods. The Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2019, for instance, uses one definition of UHNW individuals (> $50 million) and another (> $30 million). Still, in spite of their differences, the wealth researchers all agree that the US still has the highest concentration of UHNW individuals. According to Credit Suisse, the US is home to half of the planet’s 168,000 UHNW individuals. Nevertheless, China has risen to second place with 18,130 UHNW individuals, some way ahead of Germany, which takes third place with 6,800.

About the author:
Dr Rainer Zitelmann is an historian and sociologist. He is also a world-renowned author, successful businessman and real estate investor. This article is based on his book - Dare to be Different and Grow Rich : Secrets of self-made people who became rich and successful, which was publishd in 2019.